In her outstanding new book, Leadership: In Turbulent Times (Simon Schuster), Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin revisits four great American presidents—Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. Ahead of this year’s fair, PW spoke with the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian about American leadership, the current state of American politics, and why the world should look beyond the current occupant of the Oval Office.
We live in interesting times, and to get started, I wanted to ask you about the recent anonymous editorial in The New York Times, which suggested there is resistance within the Trump administration. As a presidential historian, was that editorial as extraordinary to you as it seems to me?
Yes, I think so. To write an anonymous op-ed, and the idea that the The New York Times had enough confidence in the source to print it, it just shows the anxiety that people around Trump are feeling. It is extraordinary—actually, I can’t think of another example like it, but then I can’t think of another time like this in general.
What I really feel, though, is it this highlights the importance of not losing hope—we will get through this. As my book shows, we’ve been in worse trouble before, and we got through it, but it depended on citizens not just our leaders. Right now we have to depend on citizens. And here is one citizen who is taking a risk to do something he or she thinks is really important.
That’s an interesting take, because the general take after the letter was published been that this person is a coward and should resign. You see it as a courageous act, though, and cause for hope?
Oh, absolutely. It feels authentic to me that this person is staying on because that’s the best they can do at this moment to help things from getting worse. And, yes, that’s an act of courage. Always in history, people have stood up. And we have to trust that more people will stand up. It’s not just a matter that history offers some wispy hope, I think history provides evidence of who we are as a nation, and how citizens have responded to even more difficult situations in the past. Every day it seems like something worse happens. But on the other hand, we are also seeing more and more people stand up, like the writer of this letter has. I think that’s a sign.
President Trump’s reaction to the op-ed was to demand that the writer be handed over and to call it an act of treason, a word he throws around a lot. Having written at length about Abraham Lincoln, who guided us through a civil war, do you shudder when you hear Trump throw around words like treason so trivially?
Yes. I mean, words matter. That’s one of the things that is so concerning to me about the situation today, and these words around being thrown around—fascism, treason—these words have huge, real meaning to people. It used to be that words had consequences.
You’ve already written epic, prize-winning books about each of these four presidents. What made you go back and revisit them through the lens of leadership?
You know, we have had this long period where there just couldn’t be bipartisan leadership in Washington, and people felt like the political system was failing them—even five years ago, when I started this, there was a sense that Washington was broken, which seems trivial compared to now. So I thought it would be important. I figured this is a democracy, and these four leaders got us through really tough times.
For me the book worked as a source of hope, it did give me a little confidence and perspective. Was that your intention?
What I think is really important is that, no, I don’t think there’s an easy answer to today’s situation, but unless we can imagine that we will find an answer, then we won’t even have the confidence to try. Put yourself in Lincoln’s shoes when he started in office—he once said he didn’t think he could have lived through it had he known what going to come. Or in FDR’s shoes—he comes in and the banks have collapsed and people are in the streets, and it feels like the end of capitalism, and democracy. Both Lincoln and FDR were able to imagine something different. And that’s what we have to do now. That’s why I think history can really be our guide. But, I also think that we cannot allow ourselves to think that what we’re going through now is normal. It’s not.
In writing this book, you’ve said you found no “master key” of leadership, but that you did find a “familial resemblance.” Did these four leaders share many common leadership traits?
Oh, absolutely. I think the most important thing is that they were each able to keep growing as leaders. They were self-reflective. They could acknowledge errors. They had humility, and an understanding of their limitations. Teddy Roosevelt for example understood that he’d gotten a swelled head in the state legislature, so he stopped his blistering language. FDR battled through polio, so he knew what it was like to take a sense of triumph from crawling up the stairs, one by one. FDR said he could get through all the pressures of being president because he spent two years just trying to move his big toe. And all of them had the confidence to surround themselves with people who were willing to argue with them, to create a culture that shares credit and shoulders blame, and with an emotionally intelligent part as well, so that all these different people would want to work together. Plus, the big thing: that their personal ambitions transformed into ambition for a larger goal.
Politics has been center stage in recent years at the Frankfurt Book Fair, especially in terms of defending values like free speech. With Trump embracing authoritarian leaders, how should the world view American leadership on the world stage today—should the world accept the current occupant of the Oval representative of American leadership?
I think that’s a really important question, even just as it regards the press. I mean, despite Trump’s argument that journalists are enemies of the people, just look at the vibrancy of the American press today. They’ve not been cowed in the least. Yes, it’s a terrible thing for the president to say the press is the enemy of the people. But I think the important thing for people in the world to know is that we haven’t folded as a result. And I think the other thing the world must see is that our citizens are beginning to activate. Just look at the kinds of candidates winning primaries. They are bringing a fresh perspective and energy and excitement again about public life. That’s what’s essential in a democracy, and the world must see that we have that active citizenry that’s not only fighting against what they see happening, but also bringing a sense of idealism back into politics.
Historically, presidents have always had contentious relationships with the press. Is turning the press into the opposition party as dangerous as it seems, or is it just a twist in that relationship?
Oh, no, no, no, it’s never been as bad as this. Way back in the 1850s when you had the partisan newspapers and all you read was your partisan newspaper, you’d see things very differently, and, yes, every president gets angry at the Press for particular things. But they’d never embrace the idea that the press is, not just the opposition party, but the enemy of the people—those are words thrown around by dictators and authoritarian regimes. But as I say, I think people in the other parts of world have to see where America still is. They have to have faith that the basic core of America is still strong.